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Netflix's Britney vs. Spears is more about using Britney Spears than freeing her

  • The documentary that Erin Lee Carr unveiled Wednesday after 2-1/2 years of work is more concerned with tastelessly gawking at Spears, says Daniel D'Addario. "This shapeless doc feels overlong at just over 90 minutes, because it’s unclear what, exactly, Carr and collaborator Jenny Eliscu want to say about Spears," says D'Addario. "Contrary to the film’s title, the film’s focus at times seems to be Carr and Eliscu. The pair — respectively, an accomplished documentarian and a journalist who has profiled Spears — both appear on camera, and their work of investigating Spears’ story is dramatized with shots of clicking into secret files or shuffling through paperwork. Eliscu in particular is clearly very emotionally engaged by the Spears case, but, more often, the interactions between Carr and Eliscu are so focused on the thrill of discovery as to lose sight of the human they’re trying to help through their work. But in making themselves characters in the story, the two reporters end up emphasizing how little new information they got. It may not be fair that, though they began work on this project years ago, they were beaten to the punch by the New York Times-produced Framing Britney Spears, but that is the reality; the Times’ documentary, and a brutally effective follow-up dropped this past weekend, helped bring the story into the public consciousness, and Carr’s work as a result only amplifies or adds detail on what has been known. What’s more, Framing Britney Spears was made with an exquisite sensitivity to the delicacy of Spears’ plight and with real insight about the ways in which she’d been misused by the culture even before her conservatorship began....And the documentary’s willingness to settle for easy takeaways about the Spears story means that it underthinks the harder stuff — like what it means, for Spears and for us all, that to discuss her current lack of freedom means, in this project’s case, that we must also look back in gawking horror at scandals from her past."

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    • Britney vs. Spears is schlocky, trashy and deeply uncomfortable: "What is in Britney Spears’ best interests? It’s a question that has been discussed and dissected by those around the pop star for 13 years, often abstractly, or with feigned concern, in the press or in court documents," says Michael Cragg. "It has been that way since she was placed in a controversial conservatorship, presided over by her father, Jamie, in 2008. It’s a question also posed by film-makers, whose narrative arcs often involve picking at the scabs before reaching for the plasters. In February, the New York Times documentary Framing Britney Spears recast her career through a post-#MeToo lens, via familiar shots of Spears shaving her head and distressing images from 2008 of her in the back of an ambulance prior to being involuntarily committed to a psychiatric ward. A month after it aired, Spears said on Instagram that she was “embarrassed by the light they put me in” and that “she cried for two weeks”. In May, Spears called the BBC documentary The Battle for Britney: Fans, Cash and a Conservatorship hypocritical. 'I think the world is more interested in the negative !!!!' she said. In this context, Netflix’s Britney vs Spears – directed and narrated by fan and film-maker Erin Lee Carr – feels uncomfortable...There’s a definite sense that the makers couldn’t keep up with an ever-shifting case but wanted to meet a deadline nonetheless (there’s a court hearing on Wednesday to decide if the conservatorship should be terminated)."
    • Britney vs. Spears justifies making the filmmakers the focus: "Nonfiction filmmakers, particularly in the true-crime genre, often center themselves to an extent that detracts from their subjects, but there’s merit in (Erin Lee) Carr’s choice to show her work," says Judy Berman. "It allows us to watch the wheels of the conservatorship turn against her investigation. After digging into a mysterious woman named Lou Taylor—a former business manager who seemed to be heavily involved in Jamie’s religious life—she receives a fiery letter from Taylor’s lawyer Charles J. Harder (best known for representing Trump against Stormy Daniels and Hulk Hogan against Gawker)...Carr’s account is strongest in shining light on the early years of the conservatorship while elegantly steering away from the exploitative images of Britney—shaving her head, or getting strapped to a gurney—that sold magazines in the late ’00s. Her former attorney Adam Streisand recounts being dismissed from an early conservatorship hearing, with the judge citing a report that pronounced his client incapable of retaining counsel."
    • Britney vs. Spears often feels as exploitative as the case it portrays: "She doesn’t have agency over her story," says Rachel Leibrock, adding: "Although she’s the central character, Spears’ voice remains largely silent in the narrative, even as it fuels an entire industry that’s determined to exploit the story."
    • FX on Hulu's surprise release of Controlling Britney Spears last Friday feels like a desperate attempt to steal some of the wind from Netflix: "This might work for something like the Fyre Festival or Tiger King, but here it feels like two media entities trying to compete for the juiciest reveal of a woman whose life has already been heavily exploited," says Kristen Lopez. "In the rush to jockey with Netflix, it might have been better to question whether there was anything new to tell, as much of Controlling Britney Spears feels like leftover story angles that there weren’t time for in Framing Britney Spears. Clocking in at a little over an hour, Controlling Britney Spears lacks the urgency of its predecessor. Where that film served as a chink in the armor of Spears’ conservatorship, this documentary comes off as a series of Twitter 'Top Trending' topics, detailing the levels of control that Britney Spears was under, from security bugging her phone and placing listening devices in her bedroom to controlling access to her friends."
    • The most powerful moments in each Britney Spears documentary is hearing her June 23 testimony: "The films are also limited in what they can achieve," says Marina Fang. "The details of the conservatorship are difficult to depict visually, and nothing in the entire saga has been as powerful as hearing Britney Spears’s own testimony." Fang adds: "I had forgotten how striking and breathtaking Spears’s testimony had been until I heard the audio again in these documentaries. Every time, the sound of her own voice describing her desperation, despondency, exhaustion, fear and anger stops me in my tracks, more than any other interview or document ever could."

    TOPICS: Britney Spears, FX on Hulu, Netflix, Britney vs. Spears, Controlling Britney Spears, Documentaries




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